European Heritage Days: Visiting the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris

Last weekend marked the 35th annual European Heritage Days, or Journées européennes du patrimoine, which consists of a whole weekend of culture-related events. In France, many public institutions open their doors to visitors during those two days, and this includes places that are almost never open, like say the Palais de l’Élysée, the official residence of the French President. In fact, we had initially thought of going there ourselves, until we realized that we would have to wait for five to eight hours.

In the end, we decided to make our way to the World Heritage Centre, which is UNESCO’s headquarters, located in the 7th arrondissement in Paris, just behind the École militaire and so not too far from the Eiffel Tower. The building is usually closed to visits from the public, although they do host a series of events like film screenings and art exhibits during the year.

I found the building itself, as well as its gardens, quite beautiful in that 50s public architecture style, with lots of glass and concrete. In fact, G. commented that one of the interior spaces reminded her of a Québec public school cafeteria, which is a little unfortunate. Still, there were some cool details, such as that spiralling staircase going up the exterior of the building. I fell in love with the exquisitely peaceful Japanese garden and it was interesting to see some of the  artworks created specially for the building by the likes of Picasso, Miro, Henry Moore, Giacometti, and Vassilakis Takis.

In the end, what surprised both of us was that instead of showcasing specific UNESCO heritage projects, the organizers of the event chose to hand the floor over to startups and tech companies that operate in the fields of education, the arts, and heritage. We met the Québecois creators of an app that allows you to see virtual models of ancient buildings with your phone in real time, a company that specializes in creating 3D models of endangered sites and buildings, a virtual art museum, a company that creates VR tours of ancient world sites, and many others. The day’s highlight was speaking to these enthusiastic presenters and learning about their projects.

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Maybe next year we’ll have the courage to prepare a picnic and queue up to tour the Palais de l’Élysée

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